MRG: Continued Violations Against Religious Minorities in Sri Lanka

Confronting intolerance

by Minority Rights Goup, London, December 8, 2016


Executive summary

Though Sri Lanka’s three-decade long armed conflict came to an end in 2009, hopes for a peaceful transition have been marred by ongoing violence against the country’s minorities. Post-war triumphalism and resurgent ethnonationalism, including the formation of Buddhist nationalist groups, has contributed to an increasingly hostile environment for the country’s religious minorities, in particular Muslims and Christians. This has manifested in various forms, including threats and hate speech, attacks on places of worship and mass violence, enabled by a culture of widespread impunity.

The beginning of 2015 saw political change in Sri Lanka with the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January, followed by the parliamentary election of the United National Front for Good Governance led by the United National Party in August. This was welcomed by many, including religious minorities, as an important step towards greater inclusion in the country. However, despite some signs of progress, the new government has not yet brought an end to violence and discrimination. This report therefore aims to highlight the continued rights abuses affecting religious minorities in Sri Lanka and the particular issues confronting both Christians and Muslims. Drawing on incidents documented by local rapporteurs between November 2015 and September 2016, this report presents an overview of the major trends and specific challenges for Sri Lanka’s Christians and Muslims.

While the reported data indicates a decline in direct physical violence, suggesting that extremist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and others have less space to operate under the current government, the findings nevertheless demonstrate that significant problems persist. Crucially, there also remain substantial gaps in terms of legal action against perpetrators of religious violence and discrimination. This is despite the fact that the Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees the right to equality, nondiscrimination, and freedom of religion and religious worship, highlighting a persistent culture of impunity when it comes to such acts.

For Christians in Sri Lanka, the report finds that harassment and intimidation – particularly targeted at Christian clergy members – remains commonplace, frequently with the involvement of state actors such as police. Indeed, in the majority of cases the intervention of police was negative, effectively imposing or supporting restrictions on religious freedom such as the closure of a church or halting worship services as illegal activities.

Many of these abuses have been enabled by a 2008 government Circular stipulating that the construction of new places of worship must be approved by the then Ministry of Religious Affairs and Moral Upliftment. This Circular, which lacks legal validity, has been repeatedly misapplied to justify the harassment of worshippers, particularly evangelical Christians.

As has been widely documented, Muslims have been subjected to hostility and hate speech in recent years, in large part at the hands of Buddhist nationalist groups such as BBS. Anti-Muslim riots in June 2014 that left four dead, many injured and widespread property damage was the culmination of an extensive anti-Muslim hate speech campaign by BBS – violence that they threaten to repeat.

While the analysis of recent incidents shows that direct physical attacks against Muslims and their places of worship has reduced since 2015, they continue to face a climate of fear and hostility that is actively orchestrated by Buddhist nationalist outfits, including more recent movements such as Sinha Le which was very active during the early months of 2016. The incidents illustrate the daily reality of propaganda targeting the Muslim community as a whole, as well as frequent hate speech, threats, and intimidation.

There have also been reports by activists, politicians, and other violations affecting Hindu places of worship. However, since these have not been systematically quantified, it was not possible to include a full analysis in this report.

Ensuring the full rights and protections of all religious communities in the country is essential if Sri Lanka is to move forward from the traumas of its past towards a more peaceful and sustainable future. This therefore requires a clear commitment from the government, religious leaders, law enforcement and local communities to respect religious diversity and equality before the law.

CPA: A Review for Human Rights Day

by Centre for Policy Analysis, December 10, 2016

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Sri Lanka: A Review for Human Rights Day 2016

Human Rights Day (December 10th) gives us an opportunity to reflect on the successes and more importantly, the failures in addressing human rights-related issues in Sri Lanka, and to hopefully use this evaluation as a guideline for the years ahead.

This is not an exhaustive overview but provides an insight into issues that have been addressed over the course of 2016 and how much still needs to be done towards realising greater promotion of human rights for all Sri Lankan citizens.

The passage of legislation to establish an Office of Missing Persons

The OMP will bring about the first permanent independent entity to address the issue of missing persons in Sri Lanka. Previously, the government-appointed Paranagama Commission heard testimonies of families of the disappeared across the island, recording cases in the thousands of individuals who have gone missing during and even before the conflict.

The new bill provides the OMP with the following functions:

  • Provide status reports on ongoing investigations to the family as long as it does not hinder the investigation.
  • Establish a system for the protection of victims and witnesses coming before the OMP.
  • Create, manage, and maintain a database with regards to missing persons.

The OMP can also make recommendations on the following: prevention of future disappearances, ways of commemorating and acknowledging those missing, publishing information relevant to a missing person, development of relevant laws and regulations, reparations, and the handling of unidentifiable and identifiable remains. The findings from investigations done by the OMP will not give rise to criminal or civil liability.

The legislation was passed in August yet to date, the office has not been set up.

The passage of the Right to Information Act

The main purpose of the Right to Information Bill is to specify grounds on which access may be denied, to establish the Right to Information commission, to appoint Information Officers and to set out the procedure and for matters connected with it. The Act provides the mechanism by which every citizen will be able to access information which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority.

Ministries, departments, public corporations, local authorities, non-governmental organizations that are substantially funded by the government, higher educational institutions, courts and tribunals etc. should provide access to information and shall maintain records.

The introduction of the Right to Information Act was a key pledge in the 100-day work program of the government. The provisions of the Act can come into operation as early as February 4th 2017.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Counter-terrorism Act

There has been push from civil society and the international community for several years to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and in 2015, the Government of Sri Lanka in a historic co-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council promised that it would replace the PTA with a counter-terrorism law that complies with international best practices.

The PTA is tirelessly referred to as draconian and has even been used to prosecute human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents of the state. However, a draft of the Counter-terrorism Act (CTA) intended to replace the PTA has been met with criticism too as experts have pointed out clauses where the draft legislation is as harsh as that which it is supposed to be replacing.

  • The denial of prompt access to legal counsel – no access to lawyer until first statement is recorded or 48 hours after arrest.
  • The admissibility of confessions potentially obtained through torture; the burden of proof is on the prosecutor to prove voluntary confession, as opposed to the PTA which puts burden on the person giving evidence to prove coercion.
  • Criminalisation of speech that ‘threatens unity’ and the disclosure of confidential information.
  • Some provisions of the CTA contradict the new Right to Information Act, which prohibits the punishment of whistleblowers who disclose information held by public authorities.
  • The Act is broadly drafted and large number of offences which come under the Act, retains some provisions from PTA while merely adding new offenses.

Militarisation and release of lands in the Northern and Eastern provinces

Military occupation of land utilized by private citizens remains a concern in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Not only do large swathes of land still remain as High Security Zones (HSZ) and forces headquarters but the tri-forces have taken to operating businesses in these regions too. Several hotels in the North and East and operated and staffed by forces personnel, in operations that crowd out local business owners and residents of the area. The army also operates several rest stops and cafés along the A9 highway.

While there has been slow release of lands across the Northern province over the course of the year, a CPA report indicates how much is yet to be returned to civilians in terms of reparations and fulfilling promises of transitional justice.

Rights for plantation sector workers

A collective agreement was signed by Sri Lanka’s regional plantation companies and labour unions to increase the daily wage of estate workers to LKR 730. The marginal hike, came after thousands employed in tea estates stage a wide strike in September, one of the largest such movements from the industry in recent times.

CPA’s advocacy to obtain addresses for those living in the plantation sector ensured that 1500 families received addresses in the last year, a fundamental right which had been denied to them despite being inhabitants of the region for generations.

Urban development and displacement in Colombo

CPA has documented and advocated for communities in Colombo that were forcibly relocated by the Rajapaksa regime, following their story from their departure from their old homes to their lives in the new high-rise buildings that they were relocated to.

A recent report noted that, in less than three years of living in these new apartment complexes, residents experience a considerable deterioration in the quality of life, income mismatch leading to debt, a high expression of desire to move, mostly as a result of a disconnect from the built environment.

There has been no concrete effort on the part of the new government – which is continuing the activities of the previous regime’s Urban Regeneration Program (URP), with another 15,000 – 20,000 high-rise apartments being built at present – or the new management of the Urban Development Authority, to address the critical issues arising from the URP, whether they be related to the buildings, resident issues or even the provision of documents and information residents are entitled to, in their language of preference.

 The National Anthem

A fundamental rights case challenging the legality of singing the National Anthem in the Tamil language at the Independence Day celebration on February 4, 2016 was dismissed by the Supreme Court.

CPA filed a petition dated 4th of March 2016 to intervene in the said case. CPA argued that since Tamil and Sinhala are both National and official languages and since the words of the Tamil translation of the national anthem were included in the constitution, singing the national anthem in Tamil at state functions did not violate any provisions in the constitution.

CPA has worked extensively on language rights, by way of legal advocacy and grassroots mechanisms in attempts to give equal prominence to both official languages in Sri Lanka.

Hate speech

Over the last few months, CPA and several other organisations raised concerns over statements made by and movements organised by extremists that are in favour of a Sinhala-Buddhist country, with special opposition against the Muslim communities being made in these statements. Galagodaththe Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) recently threatened a ‘bloodbath’ if leader of Muslim organisation the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jama’ath (SLTJ) was not imprisoned. In addition to this, the remarks made by Ampitiye Sumana to a Tamil GS officer in the Batticaloa district went viral on social media due to the threats of violence and foul language directed at Tamil people. A new report highlights how Muslim and Christian minorities have experienced violence and threats across the island.

This behaviour has been increasingly recorded across various communities in Sri Lanka. While it is not exhibited by them solely, the tidal wave of evidence on social media and mainstream media coverage shows that it is mostly Buddhist monks who have expressed these in public forums.

Two CPA research reports have highlighted how social media forums, Facebook pages in these cases, quickly become politicised and subsequently, the relatively unshackled freedom of expression found in social media also invited unchecked expressions of hateful and defamatory material targeting minorities.

Abuse of power by law enforcement authorities

Five officers were arrested in connection with the fatal shooting of two students of the University of Jaffna as they rode by on a motorbike, yet the incident it opened up a larger conversation on the issue of police brutality and the impunity that police officers and law enforcement officers enjoy. The report of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Commission Against Torture released soon after exposed the routine torture carried out by police on witnesses and detainees in gruesome depth, detailing torture methods and the trauma suffered by victims.

Government representatives – including National Intelligence Chief DIG Sisira Mendis, former head of the Criminal Investigation Department and the Terrorist Investigation Department – were questioned by the independent experts about abductions, secret detention centres, torture in custody, custodial death and other rights violations.

UNCAT members asked the Sri Lankan delegation what safeguards were contained in the proposed Counter-Terrorism Act to prevent arbitrary arrest. The panel’s concluding remarks included several recommendations to the Government of Sri Lanka in terms of accountability for these issues and reparations for victims.

Article 16 and the reform of Muslim Personal Law

Women’s rights groups have been calling for the reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) for decades; these voices grew louder this year in line with the discussions around the new Constitution. The call for reform highlights that the Act condones several things that are not in the best interest of women and children who are subject to it, including child marriage, unequal proceedings of divorce between men and women and the lack of female inclusion in the Quazi courts that administer the law.

While a Cabinet Sub-committee has been appointed to look into these reforms, it has lead to a movement that is calling for the repeal of Article 16 of the Constitution, which states that ‘all existing written law and unwritten law shall be valid and operative notwithstanding any inconsistency with the preceding provisions of this Chapter’. This provision places the Muslim Personal Law and all others similar to it above the Constitution, denying citizens subject to them of their fundamental right of equality. If Article 16 were to remain in its current form, it ensures that the Sri Lankan government can continue to ignore any violations of human and fundamental rights faced by citizens subject to these laws.

Sri Lanka’s journey forward remains unpredictable.

The Report of the Sub-committee on Fundamental Rights is significant because it provides recommendations for principles to be considered when formulating a fundamental rights chapter for the new Sri Lankan Constitution. If the drafters of the Bill adhere to these recommendations, it would allow for better protection of human rights for citizens of Sri Lanka. However, just the inclusion of these rights in the Constitution will not be adequate.

President Sirisena’s request to President-elect of the United States of America Donald Trump, for his assistance in freeing Sri Lankan troops from allegations of war crimes during the conflict, signals a retraction by the government of its promise to the UNHRC to investigate human rights violations. The leaders of our country must understand the importance of addressing such allegations as a vital step towards achieving meaningful reconciliation.

AI: Much Remains to be Done on Torture

by Amnesty International, London, December 9, 2016

The Sri Lankan authorities must take decisive action to stop torture and other ill-treatment, investigate complaints, and hold perpetrators accountable, Amnesty International said following the publication of the concluding observations by the UN Committee against Torture on Sri Lanka.

Amnesty International Australia


“If the Sri Lankan authorities are serious about breaking with the harrowing legacy of the country’s decades-long conflict, it must end impunity for torture and other acts of ill-treatment.” CHAMPA PATEL, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL’S SOUTH ASIA DIRECTOR.

“Sri Lanka has taken important and positive steps. However, we also share the UN Committee against Torture’s alarm over Sri Lanka’s failure to prevent these crimes by the security forces and their concern that torture and other ill-treatment continue to take place. Impunity persists for perpetrators, as well as for those who have committed enforced disappearances, and deaths in custody and the use of coerced confessions continue to be reported.”

Lingering shadow of the conflict

In its assessment of Sri Lanka’s record on torture and other ill-treatment, the UN Committee against Torture said that the 26-year-long internal armed conflict continues to cast a long shadow over the country.

Despite promises, the authorities have failed to investigate serious human rights violations committed during the armed conflict.

Violations, however, were not limited to the legacy of the past. The Committee expressed concerns – shared by Amnesty International – that torture by police remains “a common practice,” with the absence of crucial safeguards in detention facilitating such abuse.

Amnesty International joins the UN Committee against Torture in calling on the Sri Lankan authorities to identify and prosecute perpetrators of unlawful killings, including of five Tamil students on Trincomalee beach and of 17 aid workers in the town of Muttur in 2006.  We support the call of the Committee for Sri Lankan authorities to protect the family of disappeared political cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda from harassment or reprisal as they seek truth and justice.

“The Sri Lankan government has previously made a commitment to address the widespread human rights violations that occurred during Sri Lanka’s armed conflict and in its immediate aftermath. But it has yet to lend those words substance by establishing the promised institutions, such as a judicial mechanism with a Special Counsel, a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-Recurrence, and an office for reparations,” said Champa Patel.

Important but limited progress

Amnesty International is encouraged by some of the important steps Sri Lanka has taken, including the introduction of legislative and other measures designed to prevent torture and other ill-treatment.  However, these efforts have yet to be implemented effectively, leaving impunity for perpetrators in place.

The Sri Lankan authorities have also failed to act on previous observations made by the Committee against Torture. Safeguards are yet to be introduced to prevent torture and other ill-treatment by the security forces, and despite prohibitions in Sri Lanka’s Evidence Ordinance, courts continue to admit “confessions” obtained through torture and other ill-treatment into evidence.

The Committee expressed alarm that an official with previous command responsibility over a notorious site of torture and other ill-treatment was part of a delegation to meet with UN officials in Geneva.

“The Sri Lankan authorities need to match their words with actions.” CHAMPA PATEL.

“The Sri Lankan authorities need to match their words with actions. The Committee against Torture has made a series of recommendations that should be acted on immediately. Safeguards should be put in place. Security forces have to know that torture and other ill-treatment will not be tolerated and that any survivors must obtain redress,” said Champa Patel.

Further recommendations

Amnesty International is also calling on the Sri Lankan authorities to take the following steps recommended by the Committee to prevent torture and other ill-treatment:

  • End reprisals against victims and witnesses of these crimes
  • Repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and abolish the regime of administrative detention including in the form of “rehabilitation”
  • Ensure that all detainees are either promptly charged with recognizable offences and remanded by a court, , or else released
  • Ensure that the Protection Division provided for by the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses Act is an autonomous entity, independent of the police command structure
  • Ensure that the Office of Missing Persons is given enhanced capacity, including forensic expertise, to allow it to carry out effective investigations
  • Guarantee detainees prompt and unrestricted access to a lawyer from the time of arrest, including during interrogation
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT), with a view to providing international oversight of places of detention as well as establishing an independent mechanism (National Preventive Mechanism) to monitor all places of detention
  • Guarantee victims of torture and other ill-treatment effective reparations, including restitution, compensation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.